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Popular Herbicide Triggers Rash of Cancer Lawsuits


Biologists have long raised concerns about the ecological impact of the world’s most popular weed killer, RoundUp.

RoundUp’s active ingredient, glyphosate, kills milkweed plants in and around farm fields and on roadsides, depriving monarch butterfly caterpillars of their sole source of food. This has contributed to a 90 percent decline in monarch butterflies over the two decades RoundUp has been widely sprayed on genetically-modified corn and soybean crops.  

But the herbicide has also unleashed a second trend: a rash of lawsuits. People suffering from a form of cancer allegedly linked to RoundUp have filed more than 9,000 lawsuits against the weed-killer’s manufacturer, Monsanto, and its German parent company, Bayer pharmaceuticals.

Environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. represented a California man dying of lymphoma who in August won a $289 million jury verdict against Monsanto and Bayer.

“Lee Johnson was a California public school ground superintendent, and part of his job was spraying for weeds on the playing fields and on the school grounds,” Kennedy said. “And he used a 50 gallon tank of Monsanto’s herbicide RoundUp, and he often got the spray on himself.  And he ended up getting non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a particularly virulent form of the disease.”

Although the verdict for Lee Johnson was later reduced to $78 million,his case was just the first of more than 1,000 that Kennedy’s firm plans to take against Bayer—and there at least five other law firms pursuing similar cancer claims involving Non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

As a result, stock in the global company has plummeted 38 percent this year, and the company has announced cuts to 12,000 jobs.

Bayer CEO Werner Baumann told Bloomberg News the cancer claims are baseless.

“Well, we stand firmly behind the safety of glyphosate,” Baumann said.  “There are more than 800 studies out there that confirm the safety of the product and that also confirm that there is no cause and effect between the use of the product and the development of cancer.”

The U.S. EPA continues to permit the use of RoundUp, although its renewal is overdue.  In 2015, the World Health Organization labelled glyphosate a “probable human carcinogen.”

Beyond the ongoing legal fight over the possible human health impact of RoundUp is its impact on nature and wildlife. A Sunday New York Times magazine cover story on November 27 described a global “insect Armageddon,” with biologists documenting widespread losses of bees, butterflies and other flying insects that could be linked in part to herbicides and pesticides.

Jennifer Sass is a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. She said RoundUp likely plays a role in this insect loss by eliminating not only milkweeds, but also wildflowers and other plants that form the food web and shelter for a wide variety of species.

“Not only do they have a scorched earth approach to agriculture in the field, where they kill everything except the intended crop, so all of the weeds that would actually provide bloom and blossom and forage for all these pollinators, and beneficial insects, is killed,” Sass said. “And then, in addition, these herbicides come off the soil and into local water and waterways.  And so there, glyphosate can impact all sorts of other kinds of aquatic wildlife.”

With fewer insects, there’s less food for fish and birds – and less biodiversity in general. Although the question of RoundUp’s role in human cancer remains unanswered, it is clear that our world is suffering from a sickness: a slow vanishing of biodiversity, and the disappearance of many forms of life that do serve or adapt to human profit.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.